In two exciting seasons as the University of Tennessee's head basketball coach, Cuonzo Martin (pronounced: KAHN-zo) has the national hoops landscape abuzz about the Volunteers' future built upon a foundation of defense, discipline and toughness.
Tennessee has logged upset victories over three top-25 opponents in each of Martin's first two seasons, and he has also led the Big Orange to at least one win over every Southeastern Conference school - Kentucky is the only other league team to accomplish that feat over the last two years.
Martin's first UT squad was picked in the preseason to finish 11th in the then-12-team SEC, but his Vols won eight of their last nine regular-season games en route to a 10-6 record in league play and second place in the final conference standings.
A strong finish also was in order during the 2012-13 campaign, as Tennessee again won eight of nine to conclude regular-season play.
Blue Ribbon took notice of Martin's wide-ranging impact on Rocky Top, naming him its 2012 SEC co-Coach of the Year.
"We're excited about the future of Tennessee basketball under Cuonzo Martin," UT Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart said. "Cuonzo has proven that he and his staff can develop players and compete on the court and on the recruiting trail. He's fostered an atmosphere of compliance, discipline and toughness and our fans have responded to his focused, intense and genuine personality."
Each of Martin's two seasons at UT have included triumphs over the defending national champion, as the Vols toppled UConn in 2012 and posted a 30-point win over Kentucky in 2013.
Other notable wins from the past two years include a victory over eventual Final Four participant Wichita State and an unblemished 3-0 record against Florida.
Player development has been a prime highlight of Martin's tenure at Tennessee, with forwards Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes and shooting guard Jordan McRae each earning All-SEC acclaim as well as the attention of NBA front-office personnel.
McRae exploded as a junior in 2012-13, finishing as the SEC's third-leading scorer in league play with 19.2 ppg. He averaged 7.9 ppg as UT's "sixth man" the previous season.
National college basketball experts Jay Bilas, Seth Davis and Jimmy Dykes each picked McRae as their 2013 SEC Player of the Year. McRae also was named UT's Male Student-Athlete of the Year.
As a sophomore in 2012-13, Stokes' development led to him being one of only five players in all of major college basketball - and the only player from the SEC - to average a double-double in conference play (13.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg).
In 2011-12, Maymon increased his scoring output from 2.6 ppg and 2.8 rpg the previous year to 12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg.
Stokes and Maymon have combined for 27 double-doubles the past two seasons.
While the Vols shot .438 as a team in 2001-12, they were also stoppers on the defensive end. Tennessee's scoring defense of 61.6 ppg in SEC play was the program's best since 1969.
Martin's UT squads have been dominant on the glass. Tennessee finished second in the SEC in rebounding defense and rebounding margin in league play in both 2012 and 2013.
In 2013, Stokes led the SEC in total rebounding (10.7 rpg) and offensive rebounding (4.4 orpg, a school record).Tennessee averaged 17,395 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena last season, marking the eighth straight year that UT has finished in the top six nationally in average home attendance during the regular season.
On the recruiting front, each of Martin's first two Tennessee signing classes have featured a five-star, top-25 national prospect - power forward Jarnell Stokes in 2012 and shooting guard Robert Hubbs III in 2013.
"Cuonzo Martin is outstanding," Dykes, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, said. "I think he's a leader of men. His teams are always going to guard. They're always going to rebound. They're always going to have a toughness about them. They're always going to be well-disciplined and well-prepared. Tennessee is a big-time job. He was a terrific hire."
While Martin's walk to the podium on March 28, 2011 -- the day he was introduced as the program's 18th head coach -- was only a few short steps, it called to mind the inspiring journey that brought him from a single-parent home in the drug-ravaged streets of East St. Louis, Ill., to the hardwood at Purdue University -- where he earned a degree and paved his way into the NBA -- to the top echelon of the college basketball coaching ranks.
"This is a top-25 job," Martin said. "But the goal for our program is to one day be the last team standing and be the national champion, and I think we can do that with the right pieces."
The 41-year-old Martin landed on Rocky Top after a remarkable three-year stint as the head coach at Missouri State from 2009-11. In his final season in Springfield, Mo., Martin became the program's first-ever Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year and led the Bears to their first-ever regular season MVC championship. That team posted a 26-9 overall record, and its 15-3 mark in MVC games set a school record for conference wins in a season.
At the 2011 Final Four in Houston, Martin received the Ben Jobe National Coach of the Year Award, presented annually to the top minority head coach in Division I men's basketball.
Martin also was a finalist for the 2011 Hugh Durham "Mid-Major" Coach of the Year Award, and the USA Basketball Junior National Team Committee handpicked Martin to join Matt Painter and Brad Stevens on the United States men's coaching staff at the 2011 FISU World University Games in Shenzhen, China.
"(Coach Martin) is a great person and a great motivator," said former World University Games participant Robbie Hummel, who was recruited to Purdue by Martin. "He demands a high level of effort and performance. That's something you want in a coach. He treats you great, but on the court he expects a lot from you."
In Knoxville, it took very little time for the Tennessee team Martin inherited to appreciate the impressiveness of his coaching style and the staff he assembled.
"I think the coaching staff is really a great group of guys; they are pretty much amazing," former Freshman All-America forward and current Orlando Magic star Tobias Harris said after taking part in only a handful of individual workouts with Martin and his assistants.
It's easy to see how Martin grew proficient at developing great players. His mentor, Purdue legend Gene Keady, was a six-time National Coach of the Year and is the second-winningest coach in Big Ten history. And in Martin's case, the apple didn't fall far from the tree.
"I don't like to put labels on any of my players," Keady said. "But in 50 years of coaching, he's the best leader I ever had."
Martin was a standout player for the Boilermakers as a collegian, scoring 1,666 points in 127 career games. Purdue posted a 90-37 record during his four-year career, including a combined 54-12 mark in his last two seasons. He made 45.9 percent of his 3-point attempts (179-for-390) over his junior and senior seasons and was an 80 percent free-throw shooter.
During Martin's senior year (1994-95), he averaged 18.4 points per game while leading Purdue to the second of three consecutive Big Ten championships, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. Broadcaster Dick Vitale also named Martin to his All-Defensive Team in 1995.
After his first two years at Purdue, Martin was 0-for-7 from 3-point range. But by the time his career was over, he was the school's all-time leader with 179 3-pointers made.
Martin also set the Purdue school record for 3-pointers made in a game, draining eight treys in an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen contest against Kansas on March 24, 1994 -- a game hosted at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena. The Boilermakers won that game to advance to the Elite Eight, and Martin's record has yet to be topped (he also holds the Purdue record for consecutive games played, with 127).
The Atlanta Hawks made Martin the 57th overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, and he played professional basketball for four years, including NBA stints with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Vancouver Grizzlies. He also was the team captain and leading scorer with the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Hoops of the Continental Basketball Association for three seasons and was the leading scorer for Felize Scandone in Avellino, Italy, in 1997.
In November of that year, Martin was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and returned to the United States for treatment of a malignant tumor between his heart and lungs. He received his last treatment on April 20, 1998, and is now in full remission.
After triumphing against cancer -- as he did with every obstacle previously placed in his path -- Martin was summoned by Keady back to Purdue and received his bachelor's degree in restaurant, hotel, institutional and tourism management in 2000.
"That was the biggest accomplishment to me," Martin said. "It was very humbling to walk across that stage and get my degree."
From 2000-08, Martin served as an assistant coach at his alma mater, working side-by-side with Keady, Painter and Paul Lusk. During that span, the Boilermakers made three NCAA Tournament appearances while producing three All-Big Ten selections and three Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honorees.
Martin was instrumental in recruiting several Boilermaker greats, including Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, Carl Landry and E'Twaun Moore. Purdue's 2006 signing class was rated among the top five nationally and was universally considered as the best in the Big Ten, and in September 2007, Martin was promoted from assistant coach to associate head coach.
"He really cares about basketball, and he really cares about winning," Moore, now starring for the NBA's Orlando Magic, said. "Coach Martin is always talking, always communicating and always trying to get you fired up. "Even if you don't feel like playing, he can get you fired up."
In March 2008, Martin was introduced as the head coach at Missouri State. After finishing 11-20 in his first season with the Bears, the team improved to 24-12 and won the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament title in 2009-10.
The Bears' 13-game turnaround in the win column made them the fifth-most improved team in the nation, and they tied Kansas for the national lead in home wins with 19.
Martin also saw six of his players earn 2010 MVC postseason honors, as Kyle Weems was named second-team All-MVC and Adam Leonard was tabbed as the MVC Newcomer of the Year.
That 2009-10 MSU team also led the MVC in scoring and assist-to-turnover ratio while ranking among the top 25 nationally in turnovers per game (11.3).
In 2010-11, Missouri State earned the No. 1 seed in the MVC Tournament and advanced to the championship game. The Bears then appeared in the NIT, defeating Murray State in the first round before falling at Miami (Fla.).
When the curtain fell on the 2010-11 season, Missouri State ranked seventh nationally in turnovers per game at 10.3; led the MVC in 3-point percentage (.376, 39th nationally) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.28, 27th nationally); and ranked second in the conference in winning percentage (.743, 30th nationally), scoring offense (69.8 ppg), and scoring margin (+6.7 ppg).
Martin's last two Missouri State squads averaged 25 wins, a year-end RPI of No. 57 (including a high of No. 39 in 2011) and posted a combined record of 50-21 for a .704 winning percentage. The Bears also went a combined 36-3 (.923) at home during that stretch, and the three home losses were by a combined total of five points.
All told, from his first season to his third and final year in Springfield, Martin increased Missouri State's win total from 11 to 26, and the Bears' conference victories increased from three to 15 -- an improvement of 400 percent.
Finding a more impressive two-year turnaround would prove to be a tall order.
Martin graduated from Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, Ill., and, along with eventual NBA Lottery Pick LaPhonso Ellis, led the Tigers to a pair of IHSA Class AA state championships. In 2007, Martin was honored as one of the 100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament.
He also has used his courage and experience with cancer to promote awareness of cancer research and support numerous cancer charities.
In 2008, Martin served as a spokesman for the inaugural Purdue Center for Cancer Research Challenge, which attracted more than 1,000 runners and walkers to Ross-Ade Stadium and raised more than $30,000 for cancer research at Purdue. In his honor, the Cuonzo Martin Challenge Award was established.
Immediately following Martin's prep career at Lincoln, he attended New Hampton (N.H.) Prep School before embarking on what would become a tremendously inspiring career in college basketball.
Cuonzo LaMar Martin was born Sept. 23, 1971, in East St. Louis, Ill. He and his wife, Roberta, have two sons, Joshua and Chase, and a daughter, Addison.